Local police departments will spend more time this year combating a resurgence of gang activity in city neighborhoods and in schools, and the feds will be picking up part of the tab.
The Department of Justice has pumped an additional $300,000 into Project Safe Neighborhoods, a 4-year-old program whose mission - getting illegal guns off the street - has been expanded to include gang activity, U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor said Wednesday.
About 70 percent of the new anti-gang money will go to local police agencies to pay overtime expenses in gang investigations. The rest will be used to train school police officers and security personnel to recognize gang signs, symbols, graffiti, tattoos and clothing.
In addition, the federal gun, drug and organized-crime task forces that operate under Project Safe Neighborhoods will also turn their resources to gang cases.
"Clearly, in Connecticut, we've seen a resurgence in gang activity," said O'Connor, citing the slaying last month of Hells Angel Roger "Bear" Mariani on I-95 in West Haven, and incidents of suspected gang violence in Stamford and other cities.
"It's not the widespread violence we saw in the 1990s, but it's at a high enough level where experience tells us we have to address it quickly and harshly or it will balloon into something bigger," O'Connor said.
Meriden police Officer Thomas Cirillo concurs. The 24-year veteran, coordinator of his city's Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education program, said that school police officers in medium and larger cities in the state are seeing an increase in gang activity.
"Not only in graffiti, but in verbal arguments, intimidation, fights," Cirillo said Wednesday.
He was one of the instructors, along with Meriden police Sgt. Salvatore Nesci and Bridgeport Officer Michael Gosha, at a gang-recognition seminar for law officers statewide Tuesday and Wednesday in Meriden. The program at the Police Officer Standards and Training Council was recently expanded to present law officers with the latest information on gang markers, graffiti, gang recruitment and other behavior.
Cirillo said the constant barrage of media images that glorify the gang life "have a huge impact on kids. And parents need to recognize the dangers of gangs and step up to the plate."
Gang violence, fueled by drug trafficking, drove the homicide rate to record levels in the mid-1990s. Federal and state law officers teamed with city police departments in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, New Britain, Meriden, Middletown and elsewhere to crack down on highly organized gangs such as the Latin Kings, Los Solidos and 20-Love. Gang leaders went to prison in droves and the homicide level dropped.
Many of those ex-gang members have served their sentences and are back in the community. In some cases, they've gotten back into criminal activity. In other cases, a younger generation of criminals has taken over the turf.
"One difference between the 1990s and now is the age of gang membership has lowered significantly," O'Connor said. "Before, they were largely 18 and over - adults. Now, youths 14 to 16 are joining gangs and committing violent acts."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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